Federal Hearing on Broadband sound like MN hearings – with only one side speaking

Doug Dawson (POTs and PANs) is taking a look at federal hearings on Broadband Grants. It looks like the large national providers may be having their day to be heard…

But that doesn’t seem to be the intent of these hearings. The hearings want to look at two issues. The first is to make sure that the grants are only used for connecting to unserved locations and not used for ‘overbuilding’. This has been a major talking point for the big cable companies for years – they don’t want to see any grant money used to encroach on areas they think of as their service territories. The whole idea of not using grants for overbuilding is ludicrous – there are not many homes in the country where at least one ISP can’t provide service – so every new broadband network that is constructed is overbuilding somebody.

The second issue…

The issue that has the big cable companies up in arms is that the IIJA grant legislation says that once a state has satisfied bringing broadband to unserved and underserved locations, grant funding can be used to improve broadband in inner cities and places that the big ISPs have ignored. There will not likely be a lot of BEAD grant money that goes to this purpose, but there will be some.

The third issue…

The other stated purpose of the hearings is to make sure that the grants don’t have waste, fraud, or abuse. It’s going to be really interesting to see where this leads in hearings. The only big historical cases of grant waste and abuse I know of are the way the big telcos often took CAF II funding and made no upgrades. I don’t picture these hearings dredging up past abuses by the big ISPs, so I’m having a hard time imagining where else this line of inquiry might go.

Why?

These hearings only make sense as a way to appease the large ISPs which contribute heavily to politicians. It’s hard to imagine that these hearings will change anything. Congress can change the BEAD grant rules any time this year, but that will take bipartisan cooperation – something that seems to have disappeared from Washington DC. But the hearings will only allow for the airing of the big ISP grievances, and I guess that is something.

This makes me nervous because I have been tracking broadband conversations at the Minnesota State Capitol and have been seeing a lack of consumer protection or community representation. The providers get a chance to speak. And the impact of provider perspective seem to permeate the questions that legislators are asking. The last meeting at the MN Senate there was concern about staffing issues and potential supply shortages as well as the Office of Broadband Development getting into digital equity.

MN House bonding committee hears of billions in federal funds available for MN capital projects – including broadband

I’ve said before, I just can’t hear enough about the federal funding coming for broadband. It’s confusing and the numbers are huge. (Huge but not sufficient to get border to border broadband.) If you feel the same, this is another concise view of the funds coming it. This look was different for me because it wasn’t just broadband-focused. Interesting to compare to other capital projects. (You can keep track on the MN Management and Budget IIJA website.)

And here’s the recap from the MN House…

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

The federal government has promised about $1 trillion to the states through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Minnesota is expected to receive more than $7.4 billion in formula funds over the next five years, but a majority require a state match.

State agencies have been coordinating with each other and local agencies to maximize the impact of the federal dollars, said Liz Connor, MMB’s strategic initiatives manager. She highlighted the state’s IIJA website, with information for local governments and others on technical assistance and resources, as well as a grant opportunity tracking form.

Minnesota has been awarded nearly $5.9 billion to date, but that doesn’t mean there is authority to spend it, Connor said, though MMB has a handle on what the state will be pursuing. Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed budget — scheduled for release Jan. 24 — is expected to include proposals for matching funds.

Questions the committee must answer, said Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City), include how much money is available, how much the match is, and how much the state needs to unlock federal funds.

American Rescue Plan

Minnesota was also awarded $180.7 million through the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund. To access the fund, capital projects must:

  • directly enable work, education and health monitoring;

  • address needs arising from, exacerbated by or identified following the COVID-19 pandemic; and

  • address a critical need of the community served.

To date, $130.7 million to expand access to broadband in Minnesota has been approved by the U.S. Treasury Department. This includes $15 million for a new program to help homes and businesses defray the construction costs of bringing broadband services from the road to the door.

The state is awaiting a federal response — possibly by fall 2023 — on another proposed $50 million for multi-purpose community facility projects that’d be administered by the Department of Education. Examples of eligible projects include improving internet access at libraries or creating employment centers at community health care sites.

Adosh Unni, the department’s director of government relations, said the expected 2- to 2 ½-year turnaround to spend funds once they’re allocated is manageable.

We all do better when we are all better connected – study shows how

Common Sense has released analysis of how universal connectivity benefits education, health care, government services, and employment. They look at three things:

  • How Institutions Use Connectivity
  • The Infrastructure Required to Innovate Essential Services
  • How Federal Funds Can Close the Digital Divide and Ensure Equitable Access to Essential Services.

The whole report is interesting but for most readers I think the last section will be of particular interest. They give step-by-step recommendations on how states can maximize impact by:

  • Building State Capacity
  • Mapping the Divide
  • Planning with Institutions
  • Promoting the ACP
  • Creating Sustainable Funding and Policies

FCC to collect data on ACP recipients, subscriptions and offerings

The FCC reports

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted an order creating the Affordable Connectivity Program Transparency Data Collection, a statutorily mandated annual data collection describing all internet service plans subscribed to by households enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).  Congress, through the Infrastructure Jobs and Investment Act, required the Commission to collect this data for all service plans subscribed to by an ACP-enrolled household.  Providers must also submit plan characteristics including speed, latency, and bundle characteristics, and a unique identifier associated with a broadband label if applicable, as well as certain aggregated plan enrollment subscriber data.

“To find out whether this program is working as Congress intended, we need to know who is participating, and how they are using the benefit,” said Chairwoman Rosenworcel.  “So we’re doing just that.  The data we collect will help us know where we are, and where we need to go.  We’re also standardizing the way we collect data, and looking for other ways to paint a fuller picture of how many eligible households are participating in the ACP.  We want all eligible households to know about this important benefit for affordable internet service.”

The Order would require ACP providers to submit annually data on price, plan coverage, and plan characteristics of their broadband internet services subscribed to by ACP-enrolled households.  A Further Notice seeks comment on subscriber enrollment data, digital divide metrics, metrics related to low-income plan and connected device offerings, and on the merits and burdens associated with the collection of subscriber level information.  The Further Notice also seeks comment on whether the Commission should collect information related to the digital divide, including whether an ACP subscriber is a first-time or existing broadband subscriber or is subscribed to multiple plans.  In addition, the Further Notice seeks comment on the collecting information related to providers’ low-income broadband plan and connected device offerings.

It would be nice if there was a way to invite the household to also take a speed test. Then we’d know what they are paying for and what they are getting. It seems like with the public money being invested that both parties (provider and subscriber) could be enticed to provide as much info as requested, certainly in terms of the service.

Update and/or another look at Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)

I feel like I just can’t read about IIJA and all the federal broadband funding enough. Benton Institute for Broadband & Society has a nice update on the Digital Equity Act, which in a piece of IIJA. Here are the highlights; you can check out the site for greater detail…

The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The programs focus on increasing broadband adoption and ensuring that all people and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity needed to reap the full benefits of our digital economy. The three programs are:

  • State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program: A $60 million formula grant program for states, territories and Tribal governments to develop digital equity plans.
  • State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program: A $1.44 billion formula grant program for states, territories, and Tribal governments. It will fund an annual grant program for five years in support of digital equity projects and the implementation of digital equity plans.
  • Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program: A $1.25 billion grant program. It will fund annual grant programs for five years to implement digital equity projects.

Over the past year, the NTIA has focused on the planning grant program, encouraging states, territories and Tribal governments to develop digital equity plans in tandem with universal broadband access plans required for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

OPPORTUNITY: Affordable Connectivity Outreach Grant Program now open

If you are working to spread the word on Affordable Connectivity Program funding (ACP) in your community, this funding might be for you

The Affordable Connectivity Outreach Grant Program (ACP Outreach Grant Program) is comprised of four complementary grant programs:

  • National Competitive Outreach Program (NCOP)
  • Tribal Competitive Outreach Program (TCOP)
  • Your Home, Your Internet (YHYI) Outreach Grants
  • Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) Navigator Pilot Program (NPP) Outreach Grants

The FCC issues this NOFO to describe the requirements under which it will award grants for the NCOP and the TCOP. A separate NOFO will be issued for the ACP Outreach Grant Program – Pilot Programs, YHYI and NPP. The ACP Outreach Grant Program is one tool among a comprehensive set of measures authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021(Infrastructure Act) and implemented by the FCC to help bridge the digital divide. The ACP Outreach Grant Program will help increase awareness of and participation in the ACP among eligible households. The ACP Outreach Grant Program provides new federal funding for the FCC to grant eligible governmental and non-governmental entities with the funding and resources needed to increase awareness of and participation in the ACP among those households most in need of affordable connectivity. See Section IV – Program Description of this NOFO for the full Program Description.

RESOURCE: Recommendations to Prevent Digital Discrimination

The FCC has published Recommendations and Best Practices to Prevent Digital Discrimination and Promote Digital Equity. It’s a work from people on the frontlines after doing interviews and research. They have boiled it down to a series of recommendations – with greater explanation in the report than I have recreated here. I have highlighted the recommendations that struck a chord with me. For example, number 6 on the first list focused on ISPs: encourage competition. Because so much broadband expansion is funding, at least in part, by federal grants and loans, it seems practical to reconsider at how those are funded to encourage competition rather than focus on supporting one provider in any given area.

DEI Working Group Recommendations for Model Policies and Best Practices That Can Be Adopted for States and Localities to Prevent Digital Discrimination by ISPs:

  1. Develop, implement, and make publicly available periodic broadband equity assessments in partnership with ISPs, the community, and other local stakeholders.
  2. Facilitate greater awareness and information sharing among multi-dwelling unit owners regarding tenant choice and competition considering broadband service agreements.
  3. Identify local opportunities that could be used to incentivize equitable deployment
  4. Engage, where permissible under state and federal law, in the management of public property, such as public rights-of-way, to avert discriminatory behaviors that result in or sustain digital discrimination and redlining.
  5. Convene regular meetings of broadband providers and other stakeholders, including community anchor institutions, public interest groups, community advocates, labor organizations, and faith-based institutions, to evaluate areas and households unserved or underserved with competitive and quality broadband options.
  6. Encourage fair competition and choice.

DEI Working Group Recommendations to Support Digital Equity:

  1. Make low-cost broadband available to low-income households through government benefit programs, in combination with internet service providers’ low-income programs.
  2. Build on the success of existing benefit programs that allow low-income households to apply a credit to an internet service of their choice.
  3. Raise awareness about connectivity programs for programs among eligible households.
  4. Strengthen marketing and communications about available federal and state connectivity programs and other programs that target low-income or other unconnected members of a community.
  5. Streamline the application process for government benefit programs referred to above.
  6. Increase support and funding for organizations such as schools, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations to provide digital navigation assistance in communities they serve.
  7. Fund, promote and leverage the use of digital navigators.
  8. Stakeholders should encourage Congress to create a digital public service and engagement program (e.g., digital navigators), which could conduct trainings and outreach in non-adopting communities.
  9. Increase device access and participation.
  10. Use public-private partnerships to facilitate remote learning and close the homework gap.
  11. Ensure that members of the community have safe spaces to access the internet.
  12. Strengthen digital skilling efforts in underserved communities.
  13. Encourage the creation of workforce development/training opportunities, focusing on historically underrepresented communities.

I&A Working Group Recommendations (Part Two):

  1. Adopt definitions of small minority- and women-owned (SMW) businesses.
  2. Designate a government-wide office to oversee supplier diversity initiatives, including the creation of an annual plan to increase supplier diversity.
  3. Adopt an accountable goal of no less than 30% participation of SMW businesses in state and local infrastructure grant and contract opportunities and provide incentives to first-tier contractors to partner with SMW businesses. 17
  4. Include auditing and in-progress reporting in the contracts/subgrants; implement thoughtful auditing, in-progress reporting, real-time accountability, and enforcement to ensure that SMW goals are met.
  5. The grantees, working in conjunction with the supplier diversity office, should proactively identify contracting and procurement forecasts and needs.
  6. Ensure diverse participation in task forces or committees that advise grantees on their broadband plans, including broadband supplier diversity.
  7. Promote certifications prior to disbursement of funds so that SMW businesses are prepared to participate in the funding opportunities.
  8. Grantees, subgrantees, and contractors should be required to reach out to SMW businesses.

D&E Working Group Recommendations (Part Three):

  1. The Commission needs to examine and expand the definition of “equal access” to facilitate greater adoption and use of high-speed broadband, especially among populations experiencing a range of inequalities resulting from a protected characteristic, or an intersection of various attributes or social determinants that limit their full digital engagement.
  2. The Commission should play a more active role in promoting the relevance of highspeed broadband among populations where broadband can improve quality of lives and increase consumer demand for more equitably deployed broadband services.

ReConnect awards of $759 Million go out – two in Minnesota

The USDA reports…

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing $759 million to bring high-speed internet access to people living and working across 24 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Palau. The investments include funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides a historic $65 billion to expand reliable, affordable, high-speed internet to all communities across the US. The $759 million in loans and grants comes from the third funding round of the ReConnect Program, including:

Here are the awards in Minnesota:

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative $3,788,680
This Rural Development investment will be used to deploy a fiber-to-the-home network to connect 473 people, 15 farms and nine businesses to high-speed internet in Aitkin and Crow Wing counties in Minnesota. Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative will make high-speed internet affordable by participating in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program.

Tekstar Communications $12,602,274
This Rural Development investment will be used to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 3,113 people, 171 farms, 103 businesses and a school to high-speed internet in Douglas, Otter Tail, St. Louis, Stearns and Todd counties in Minnesota. Tekstar Communications Inc. will make high-speed internet affordable by offering its “Gig Price for Life” promotion for new services. Tekstar Communications Inc. also will participate in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity and Lifeline programs.

MRBC IIJA/BEAD Broadband Funding Webinar Archive

Big thanks to the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition for sharing the archive of the webinar they hosted last week on MRBC IIJA/BEAD Broadband Funding.

Speakers included:

  • Bill Coleman – Community Technology Advisors
  • Adrianne Furniss – Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
  • Peggy Schaffer – former head of the Maine Broadband Office
  • Doug Dawson – CCG Consulting
  • Brian Ford – NTCA.

EVENT Sep 20: MRBC IIJA/BEAD Broadband Funding Webinar

Looks like a great event from the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition…

At our last meeting, we discussed having a meeting to talk more about the future activities of the Coalition.  Bill Coleman volunteered to create an online event where we can discuss how the Coalition can bring the rural voice to the Office of Broadband’s IIJA/BEAD planning process.
This event is scheduled for TOMORROW – Tuesday, September 20 from 9:00 – 11:00 am and will include guest experts from around the nation as well as opportunity for small group discussion and reporting.   Details on how to join the meeting are below.
The current line-up includes:

  • Adrianne Furniss – Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
  • Peggy Schaffer – former head of the Maine Broadband Office
  • Doug Dawson – CCG Consulting
  • Brian Ford – NTCA.

If you have ideas for guest experts, please let Bill know at bill@communitytechnologyadvisors.com.
Agenda
9:00am Welcome – Jay Trusty, Chair, MN Rural Broadband Coalition
9:05am Quick overview of the IIJA Timeline/Planning Process, Adrianne Furniss, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
9:15am Expert Panel – Key considerations for community-focused broadband
9:45am Breakout discussions on key topics
10:15am Small group reporting to the large group
10:40am Prospective role of MN Rural BB Coalition in IIJA process/Ensuring effective community voice (facilitated discussion by Bill Coleman)
10:55am Closing – Jay Trusty

Meeting Information:
Topic: IIJA/BEAD Broadband Funding Webinar
Time: Sep 20, 2022, 09:00 AM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 882 3489 1525
Passcode: 834949
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Senator Tina Smith leads Indian Affairs hearing on infrastructure in Prior Lake MN

Senator Smith’s website reports

U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) chaired a productive field hearing for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, focusing on how Tribal Nations can utilize funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Senator Smith helped pass this historic investment in our country’s infrastructure last fall. The hearing was hosted by Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community at the Mystic Lake Center in Prior Lake.

The purpose of this hearing to understand how these transformational infrastructure investments can benefit Tribal Nations in Minnesota.  This bill has $13 billion for Tribal-specific programs and set-asides.  I am committed to making sure this funding is equitably distributed and accessible to Tribal Nations, and that it makes lasting impact.

These $13 billion will help address the longstanding infrastructure inequities in Tribal communities—inequities that impact the health, economic well-being, and safety of Native peoples.  Here are some highlights:

  • There’s $3.5 billion for Indian Health Service sanitation facilities—that will make drinking water safe and improve sewage and waste disposal systems.
  • There’s $3.8 billion for roads and bridges on Tribal lands, to make roadways safer for cars and pedestrians.
  • There’s $2 billion for broadband on Tribal lands, which will improve access to education, telehealth, and economic opportunities.
  • There’s $200 million for climate resilience, so that Tribal Nations can plan for and implement responses to climate change.

 

Broadband funding results from MN Legislative Session 2022

Here is the most succinct description of future funding approved in Minnesota by the Legislature (from the Minneapolis Star Tribune)…

Broadband: State leaders will spend $50 million over the next three years to expand high-speed internet access through a border-to-border broadband grant program. Minnesota is also using federal dollars for broadband development, with $60.7 million from the American Rescue Plan and $100 million in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act cash.

US Ignite shares Federal Funding Opportunity Tool for Communities

US Ignite reports

To help communities across the country navigate federal grant opportunities for broadband and smart city projects – including new programs created under the $110 billion American Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act –  US Ignite proudly unveils the new ‘Federal Funding Opportunity Tool.’ Using the tool, community leaders seeking federal funding can now target the grants that best match their needs based on areas of investment interest, funding availability, and funding requirements.

“Federal funding programs are complex, and we know that communities need support to navigate the different grant programs that exist,” said Lee Davenport, Director of Community Development at US Ignite. “Our goal is to simplify the process of finding relevant opportunities, and in doing so, help communities use federal dollars to drive local economic growth, close the digital divide, and create smarter communities as a whole.”

US Ignite developed the Federal Funding Opportunity Tool to enhance its existing Federal Funding Opportunities Database. This database originated thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation and now curates listings of federal programs with grants to support various broadband and smart city projects. While users can still browse the full database, those who are less familiar with federal programs will find the funding tool a more efficient way to navigate the opportunities available.

Municipal leaders can access the Federal Funding Opportunity Tool for free at US Ignite’s website (us-ignite.org/tools/fundings).

Stimulus dollars, including those authorized under the American Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, are destined to greatly expand federal grants across the board. For a narrative guide on the American Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act visit the two-part funding series posted on the US Ignite blog.

Connect with the US Ignite Communities team via email by contacting communities@us-ignite.org.